It’s a substantial front door, all right. A heavy black affair, panels studded with thickly painted iron rivets, the kind of thing you might see recessed in a castle wall.
‘But we don’t need to force this one. We can get one of the other flats to let us in.’
Three in the morning, and we stand on the steps reviewing our options. The windows off to our right would break open without much problem, but below them is a drop of fifteen feet or so down into a dark basement. Blondin would blanche.
I push the buzzer to flat number one and we wait. A couple of minutes later I push it again. Another couple of minutes, the hall light goes on, a bolt is drawn back and the door swings open.
‘I’m so sorry to drag you out of bed at this ungodly hour…’
‘It’s Vera, isn’t it? She’s fallen again, hasn’t she?’
‘Is there access round the back?’
The woman stands swaying slightly, yawning and rubbing a finger into the corner of her right eye, grubbing out the sleep crust. She drops her hand and looks at me, as if she really expected to have rubbed me out at the same time.
‘We’re really sorry to have got you up like this. We couldn’t think what else to do.’
She gathers her nightgown more tightly across her chest.
‘Why the hell she won’t give us a key I don’t know. Or get one of those little black boxes for the outside. This is the third time this year. You’re going to have to call for a locksmith, maybe even the fire brigade. Last time they needed ladders to get in. You won’t be able to kick the door down. It’s got special locks on it. She’s very suspicious.’
She stands aside and we troop in.
Vera’s door is right in front of us, narrow and solid looking, not an obvious candidate for a swift kicking. I foot it speculatively and it gives at the bottom, but the rest of it seems to have a number of locks.
‘It might go,’ I say, putting my bag down.
‘It won’t,’ she says. ‘You’ll have one hell of a job.’
‘Stand back, anyway. I’ll give it a try.’
‘He likes doors,’ says Rae to the woman. They watch me from the stairs.
I draw myself back and then land a heavy kick squarely on the door just below the Yale lock. My pelvis almost flies backwards out of my trousers.
‘Told you,’ the woman says. ‘I’d call a locksmith if I were you.’
‘I’ve got one more thing I can try,’ I say, trying not to hobble. I unroll our tool kit and pull out a crowbar. I want to say: Say Hello to my leetle friend… but the woman looks at me with such a flat expression I just say: ‘This may make a bit of noise.’
I slam the flat end in the gap between the door jamb and the door, and then lever it back a couple of times as hard as I can. The wood splits, the door booms and shakes, and on the third pull I feel it give enough to stand back, take another big kick and the door flies open in a shower of splinters and unseated screws.
‘Who needs locksmiths?’ I say, dropping the crowbar back onto the roll.
‘Well you certainly do now,’ the woman says. ‘I’ll be upstairs if you need me.’
We go into Vera’s flat.
Vera is sitting on the floor of the bedroom, comfortably arranged with her legs stretched out in front of her, leaning back on the bed, talking on the telephone.
‘Yes, yes,’ she says. ‘That was them. They’re in now. Thank you. Goodbye.’ She gently places the handset back in the cradle, and turns her face up to look at us.
‘I slipped out of bed and couldn’t get up.’
Vera has a way of talking that seems as doughy as the rest of her, an air of lumpish passivity that makes her many years older than her given seventy seven.
‘Is that woman from upstairs still there?’ she says. And then: ‘It’s my knee. If you could just give me a hand up.’
We help Vera to her feet and get her back to bed. I check her over whilst Rae arranges for an emergency locksmith to come and fix up the door.
‘I’ll need to be able to let them in the front door,’ Vera says. ‘Perhaps I’d better wait in the living room.’
She hauls herself up and then moves slowly and carefully but without too much difficulty with a couple of sticks through the flat to the living room.
‘That woman upstairs is so stuck up,’ she says as she goes, her words fogging out around her in a monotonously soft and strangely sapping cloud. ‘When she first moved here and I fell over she was around straightaway, of course. Looking at her watch. Saying she had to get back to bed ‘cos she was due in court that day. So I said she shouldn’t worry about things like that. It’s like my husband always used to say: There’s no sense worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. You’ve got to wait until they do happen, because it’s never what you imagine, and never as bad as you think it’s going to be, so all that worrying would’ve been for nothing, and wouldn’t have helped you with what the problem really was in the first place. If you follow me. He put it better. But do you know what she said? She said: Well I’m due in court Vera because that’s my job. I’m a lawyer. Stuck up cow. ‘Scuse my whatsits. But there you are. I take people as I find them and expect them to do the same. Doesn’t always work, though, does it? Shall I put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea?’
‘I’m afraid we have to be going soon,’ I say. ‘Vera? We need to arrange for the Falls Team to visit you. Check the flat out. See what can be done to make things easier. Get a Key Safe put outside, so we don’t have to keep busting your door down in the early hours.’
‘That would be nice. You do that.’
‘We have to be going now.’
‘Look. That’s me when I was a little girl. Scrappy little thing, wasn’t I?’
Perhaps its the early hour, or perhaps the subject moved slightly just before the picture was taken, but the image is smudged and unreal, a hoax ghost, or someone standing off to the side whilst you look straight ahead.
‘Cute,’ I say, struggling to find anything else. I hand her back the picture.
‘I’m sorry Vera. We really have to go.’
Splinters of wood crunch underfoot as we pass back through the hallway.